Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Did you know he also established the first circulating library?
It was called The Library Company of Philadelphia. It was founded in 1731, before the U.S. had won her Independence from England!
At that time, books were rare and very expensive. Only religious leaders and very wealthy people had access to most books.
So, at the age of twenty-five, Benjamin Franklin organized a group of 50 men who were interested in sharing the books they owned with each other to increase their common knowledge.
Each founding member paid money to establish the library. That gave them the right to borrow the books it contained. They also agreed to give money each year to purchase more books for the library.
The oldest surviving catalog of this first circulating library’s holdings was printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1741. Ten years after it was founded, the library’s collection had grown to about 1,000 books. The subjects were mainly science, geography, poetry, history, theology, and exploration.
Books in English
Most of the books were written in English, which was unusual. In those days, not everyone could read, and most of the people who did, read books in Latin.
The Library Company of Philadelphia is the oldest cultural institution in the United States. The building also housed the Library of Congress from 1774-1800. Nine signers of the Declaration of Independence were members of the Library Company.
Additional information about the first circulating library
The library’s website contains a full-color document entitled At the Instance of Benjamin Franklin: A Brief History of the Library Company of Philadelphia, available in PDF format. There are many resource topics, such as Research on Nineteenth Century Publishers’ Bindings.
The site features an hour-long video tour, captured by C-SPAN Book TV in 1999. The chief librarian explains the difference between the handmade, cotton rag (non-acidic) paper that was used until the middle of the 19th century, and the wood pulp fiber that was used with the advent of machine-made paper beginning in the 1850’s and 1860’s (see video at the 28:08 minute mark). He also talks about French engraver Nicolas Jenson‘s typeface, used in one of the library’s oldest books, which dates from the late 1500’s.
To learn about another of Franklin’s library endeavors
Benjamin Franklin’s private collection of books formed the basis of another historical first library. Read about the first public library!